- More disasters of Hurricane Katrina-proportions are certain because the United States has no policy to control growth in danger zones at the water's edge.
- A slow-moving crisis has developed as land along the nation's fragile coasts has been gobbled up, concentrating wealth at the shore and putting at risk millions of people and property valued in the billions.
- Pew Oceans Commission that concluded many coastal watersheds may trip from healthy to damaged over the next two decades unless coast communities adopt growth policies that slow land consumption and minimize polluted runoff from impervious surfaces.
More disasters of Hurricane Katrina-proportions are certain because the United States has no policy to control growth in danger zones at the water's edge.
In a single generation, a slow-moving crisis has developed as land along the nation's fragile coasts has been gobbled up, concentrating wealth at the shore and putting at risk millions of people and property valued in the billions.
The number of Americans living near the shore increased by 23.6 million between 1980 and 2005, according to a Gannett News Service analysis of population trends in counties nearest the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. From the air, the footprint of coastal sprawl is unmistakable -- vast tracts of newly built houses stretch for miles. Ribbons of asphalt are crowded with shopping centers, gas stations, restaurants and other buildings.
If runaway land consumption and relentless growth in automobile use continue, many healthy shore communities could face sharp declines over the next 25 years, says Dana Beach, director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and an authority on coastal sprawl. He is especially concerned about developing and paving over land that drains into nearby bodies of water.
Beach authored a report for the Pew Oceans Commission that concluded many coastal watersheds may trip from healthy to damaged over the next two decades unless coast communities adopt growth policies that slow land consumption and minimize polluted runoff from impervious surfaces.
"Part of the dilemma is that there is vast ignorance across the country about ecology," Beach said. "When we modify watersheds (with roads and buildings), we are changing the physical attributes, the biological attributes of the water bodies embedded in those watersheds."
Concerns about Charleston's rapid pace of growth brought more than 100 local residents to a town council meeting one November evening in nearby Mount Pleasant.
Many spoke passionately against a town annexation proposal that could have opened the door to new homes, roads and shopping centers at the entrance to the region's ecological crown jewel -- the Francis Marion National Forest.
"Money isn't everything," said Kathie Livingston, an eco-tourism operator who lives in a small community inside the forest boundaries. "Any more annexation will be detrimental to the environment."
In some coastal areas, especially the urbanized mid-Atlantic, the Northeast and the Rust Belt states bordering the Great Lakes, much waterfront land is covered with roads, parking lots and rooftops -- all impervious surfaces.
Once more than 10 percent of the acreage of a watershed is no longer porous, creeks, rivers, streams and other water bodies seriously degrade, said Beach.
Runoff from parking lots and roads harm coastal waters by adding silt and debris that smother plants, promote algae growth and alter the habitat so it can no longer support fish, crabs and other creatures.
Coastal sprawl is consuming land far faster than the underlying rate of population growth, Beach said.
"It should be a warning sign," he said. "It ought to inspire us to do something."
For the most part, local governments control land-use decisions and are constantly forced to choose between the rights of property owners who want maximum value for their land and other community voices calling for restraint.
Paul Riddick, a funeral home owner and city councilman, said growth has been good for Norfolk, Va., a historic Navy town.
"Norfolk is going through its second phase of urban renewal," said Riddick, a lifelong resident of the city and former president of the Norfolk Branch of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We have so many condos being built that you can't imagine it."
Indeed, gritty bars and cheap garden apartments are rapidly giving way to award-winning seaside developments with big-city price tags.
Change carries a price. "We're seeing a lot of whites coming into certain communities that once were white, changed to black and now they are changing back again," said Riddick, who was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city school board to prevent the return of segregated elementary schools.
Norfolk officials say they plan to spearhead construction of low-cost homes for working-class families.
Most coastal communities recognize their bays and estuaries are in severe decline after decades of growth have eliminated sensitive wetlands and polluted the waters.
The 3,000-square-mile Gulf of Mexico "dead zone" off the Texas-Louisiana coast is well-known. Aquatic life there has perished. Spawning has halted.
Texas officials are trying to prevent further loss of habitat by limiting development along the 367-mile coast, through state and federal coastal and wetland protection programs, according to the state's Center for Policy Studies and Environmental Defense.
In the mid-Atlantic, the Chesapeake Bay has been plagued by problems.
In November, regional leaders agreed to pursue state and federal regulations that would require farmers to handle their animal feed and waste in a more environmentally sensitive way.
"This year has been a turning point for the Chesapeake Bay," said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell. He also is the chairman of the Chesapeake Executive Council.
The group's goal: to get the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the Chesapeake and its tributaries from the agency's list of impaired waters by 2010.
Hazardous bacterial contamination caused more than 20,000 closings and health advisory days at beaches across the country in 2004, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council's most recent report.
That's the most since the environmental group began tracking the problem 15 years ago, said Nancy Stoner, director of the council's Clean Water Project, although some of the increase is due to greater monitoring.
Patchwork of programs
The federal government has a patchwork of regulations and agencies that focus on pollution, flood control, the environment and growth patterns.
Some federal efforts like the National Flood Insurance Program and beach restoration projects run by the Army Corps of Engineers contribute to the growth of waterfront communities.
The value of property covered by the flood program is $555 billion, more than five times what it was 25 years ago. It generates approximately $2 billion in annual revenues, mostly from premium payments.
Hurricane Katrina demonstrated how a single disaster can overwhelm the flood program.
The federal government's lead agency on ocean and coastal issues now offers programs to help shore communities learn about the natural disasters that threaten them so they can make smarter decisions about future growth.
However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's budget has remained relatively flat since 2000, limiting the reach of its small teams of coastal specialists. The agency's budget for the current year is $3.86 billion, down 4 percent from 2005.
Nevertheless, NOAA has teamed up with experts at the Environmental Protection Agency to address the problem.
Many beach communities have evolved into playgrounds for the wealthy, creating a new underclass of workers who can't afford to live in the areas.
Karen Krafft, a single mother with two children, is typical.
She can barely make ends meet living in Nags Head, N.C. She works as a credit counselor. Her annual salary is $25,000. On summer weekends she cleans vacation homes for extra money.
"Unfortunately, I don't have a positive outlook on the Outer Banks because it is such a struggle," Krafft said. "It's beautiful here and I'm fortunate to live near my family. But I work seven days a week."
Krafft's story is not unusual, said Charles Colgan, chief economist for NOAA's National Ocean Economics Program.
Colgan has traced the roots of America's love affair with the coast to the economic boom the nation enjoyed following World War II.
"The bulk of the growth in coastal areas came about as a result of a wealthier society that has a very high taste for the ocean," Colgan said.
Solutions await action
In its final report, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy made more than 200 recommendations to highlight coastal issues and coordinate 11 Cabinet-level departments and four independent agencies that oversee some portion of the nation's ocean and coastal policy.
The ambitious agenda has received little attention from the White House or Congress.
President Bush partially followed one recommendation and formed a Cabinet-level Committee on Ocean Policy, which mostly serves as a clearinghouse for information on existing programs.
"The jury is still out," said the commission's Watkins, who has formed an interest group to continue pressuring Congress and the administration.
"The oceans are no longer the eternal cesspool for mankind. They can't handle it anymore."